Saturday, March 12, 2011

Big Disaster and a Nuclear Emergency in Japan

The scale of the disaster in Japan is hard to pick up from the news. The word “quake” may be slightly larger in a printed newspaper headline, but the estimated magnitude of 9.1 would make it not just a big quake, but the fourth most powerful earthquake ever observed. Combined with the resulting tsunami, which caused damage as far away as San Francisco but wiped away ports and coastal villages in Japan, it is likely the most damaging event in Japan’s history. With aftershocks continuing, the tsunami risk in Japan is not over yet.

In the middle of this natural disaster, the government’s stated top priority has been to stabilize two damaged nuclear power stations in Fukushima. The more serious problems are at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which shut down properly when the earthquake hit but then was damaged by the tsunami, causing the loss of cooling at one reactor. A day later, after the available emergency power in the cooling system was exhausted and the reactor overheated, an explosion destroyed the reactor’s containment building. Officials say it will take at least one more day to bring the reactor under control. The situation contains the potential for a catastrophic nuclear event if other problems occur before that can be accomplished, for example, if there is a particularly large aftershock that causes further damage.

All nuclear power plants are designed to stand up to earthquakes, flooding, and other disasters, and Japan is more cautious than most countries in the operation of its nuclear plants. Therefore, the number of failures that occurred following the Japan earthquake is likely to give the nuclear industry worldwide a reason to reconsider the safety of current nuclear power plants and ones under construction. It is easy to say now that it is especially important to take steps to avoid a nuclear emergency that might occur in the middle of a natural disaster, when local authorities have the least ability to respond. But when nuclear plants have to be shut down or delayed for engineering changes, this puts more pressure on oil as an energy source, making it that much more likely that oil prices will go higher than they are now.